Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2010

The Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River: Where History and Wildlife Abound

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Spring is a great time to observe wildlife and there are few places that offer better opportunities to do that than the 18-mile segment of the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River between Flowing Spring, near Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County, and the village of Alfarata in Huntingdon County.

The river runs through an outstanding example of a Ridge and Valley riparian forest. The combination of steep, wooded slopes, floodplain forests, and high soil moisture produces a diverse, healthy lowland riparian ecosystem. To the south, the river meanders through mostly forested riparian habitat that contains some agriculture and sparse human settlements. The northern portion of the river runs through a narrow gorge with a low ridge to the west and the high ridgeline of Tussey Mountain, up to 1,500 feet above the river, to the east. There is little human disturbance there other than the trail.

The Juniata River has historic roots as an important transportation corridor through southcentral Pennsylvania. It served the Native Americans as part of the Kittanning Trail and later became known as the Frankstown Road carrying westward-bound pioneers seeking to avoid the steep ridges of the ridge-and-valley province. Built in the early 1800s, the Pennsylvania Canal parallelling the Juniata River and its Frankstown Branch linked Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as part of the Mainline of the Public Works of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As the railroad industry grew more powerful, the canal systems became obsolete and by the 1850s most of Pennsylvania’s canals were abandoned. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the entire Mainline Canal system in 1857 and the segment along the Frankstown Branch operated until 1979 and was abandoned in 1982. Many reminders of the canal and railroad days are visible along the trail.

Today, access to the river is easy and paddlers have many access points from which to choose. These are all provided as part of the Lower Trail, which is also a segment of the Mid State Trail between Williamsburg and Alfarata. All access points are numbered and made obvious with an aluminum sign along the river. Access point numbers denote miles to the mouth of the Juniata River at Duncannon. A great map showing access points, camping sites, landmarks, and river features is provided by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. From upsteam to down, the canoe/kayak access points are; Flowing Spring Station near Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County (126), Grannas Station (122), Williamsburg Station (119), Mt. Etna Station (113), and Alfarata Station (107) near Alexandria, in Huntingdon County. All these also serve as trailheads for the Lower Trail and have ample parking facilities. Picnic tables, pavilions and restrooms can be found at the Alfarata, Mt. Etna, Williamburg, and Flowing Spring trailheads. The Grannas Station trailhead has a restroom, but no picnic facility.

Wildlife abounds in this watershed. The riparian corridor between Williamsburg and Alfarata was identified as an Important Bird Area by the Ornithological Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey in October 2001. Juniata Valley Audubon has officially adopted this site for the purpose of stewardship and bird monitoring.

More than 150 species of birds have been observed along the Lower Trail since Juniata Valley Audubon began a Special Areas Project there in 1995. Because of early leaf-out along this river, the number of neotropical migrants during the early portion of spring migration is typically much higher at this site than in surrounding areas. The portion of the Lower Trail between Mount Etna and Water Street is a great place to see and hear yellow-throated warblers, and ospreys and bald eagles can frequently be seen fishing along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River in spring and fall. Great blue herons, green herons, northern parula warblers, yellow-throated vireos, spotted sandpipers, cliff swallows, and bank swallows can be seen all along the river in spring and summer.

This site is home to an impressive concentration of breeding riparian bird species. Breeding bird counts of up to 200 birds per hour have been tallied along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River. Species present at exceptional breeding concentrations include eastern wood-pewee, acadian flycatcher, warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher, wood thrush, yellow warbler, cerulean warbler, American redstart, Louisiana waterthrush, and Baltimore oriole. The Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River hosts one of Pennsylvania’s most important cerulean warbler breeding areas, with estimates of 50–60 breeding pairs along this 16 mile long corridor.

If an easy and relaxing springtime paddle in a setting full of both history and wildlife is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong by visiting the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River in Blair and Huntingdon Counties.

If you go: From State College, follow Route 26 south to Pine Grove Mills, then taking Route 45 south to Route 453. Turn east (left) on Route 453 and follow it to Route 22 at Water Street. See http://www.rttcpa.org/TrailMapDirections.html for further directions to the trailheads/access points and a map.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Outings Chair on the Executive Committee of the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club